For the better part of a decade now, the South Carolina-Clemson rivalry has been more than a little one-sided on the women’s basketball court — the Gamecocks have won seven straight, eight of 10 and five by more than 20 points.
And that’s hardly expected to change this year, as No. 4 South Carolina (2-0) prepares to face Clemson (2-0) on the road Thursday night. Coach Dawn Staley’s team is expected to challenge for a Final Four, while the Tigers were picked to finish 13th in the ACC preseason poll.
But for star Gamecock forward A’ja Wilson, a Hopkins, South Carolina, native, beating Clemson is never something to take for granted and even comparable in her mind to games against the very best teams in the country.
“I always want to beat Clemson at anything. It’s always going to be a rivalry to me. I’m a homegrown girl and that’s everything. You just gotta beat Clemson,” Wilson said.
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“It’s just an in-state thing. That’s our culture ... that’s what I know I grew up on, so that’s why I take a lot of pride in it. Of course UConn and Mississippi State are always good games to play and we always have those rivalries there, but nothing’s better than an in-state rivalry.”
However, Wilson is the only South Carolina native on USC’s roster, and the Gamecocks have lots of younger players who are unfamiliar with the enmity between the two schools, so her teammates have had to learn its significance from her.
“I take it like A’ja takes it,” redshirt junior Alexis Jennings said. “She says it’s personal, so I take it personal too.”
Staley has also tried to impress upon the less experienced players how much the program’s fans want a win over Clemson.
“The fans will definitely let you know that winning this game and having South Carolina pride is a priority for us,” Staley said. “I think we have the better team going into Clemson, but the better team doesn’t always win if we take them lightly. ... A’ja makes it make sense to them. I think our players know what the rivalry means.”
That being said, Staley has a very friendly relationship with Clemson’s coach, Audra Smith. Smith and Staley were teammates in college at Virginia, and Smith was actually in Dallas in South Carolina’s section when USC won its national championship, though she was sure not to be seen celebrating with her employer’s fiercest rival.
Clemson has started the year with a pair of wins over Kennesaw State and South Carolina State. In those matchups, the Tigers averaged just 48.5 points but surrendered only 38 per game, putting them third in the country in scoring defense.
South Carolina, meanwhile, is coming off a 94-86 road win against No. 15 Maryland on Monday in which the Gamecocks nearly gave up a 20-point lead in the fourth quarter. Through two games, USC ranks 11th in the nation in scoring offense but is giving up an average of 58.5 points per game, a number Staley says the team needs to reduce.
“The surprising thing is how many points we’ve given up. That’s a lot of points to give up, but that’s a high-caliber team that we played so hopefully we can get those numbers adjusted from a defensive standpoint,” Staley said.
Senior guard Bianca Cuevas-Moore will remain sidelined against Clemson with a sprained knee, Staley said. Staley also said the team’s coaching staff is not trying to rush her back from injury. Cuevas-Moore has missed the first two games of the season after playing in USC’s exhibition.
Gamecock Fan Essentials
Who: Clemson, 2-0 this season, 15-16 last season, picked to finish 13th of 15 in ACC preseason poll
When: 7 p.m. Thursday
Where: Littlejohn Coliseum, Clemson, South Carolina
Watch: No TV broadcast, but steaming on ACC Network Extra via the WatchESPN app
Their best player: Junior point guard Danielle Edwards, who has accounted for nearly 25 percent of the Tigers’ points this season. She also has 11 steals in two games, tied for fourth in the nation.
History: Clemson leads 33-29 all time, but South Carolina has won seven straight under Dawn Staley, and the Tigers haven’t come within 20 points in half a decade.